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St. Petersburg weekend, Thursday and Friday notes

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – There have been a lot of things that have happened today and yesterday at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the season-opening weekend for the Verizon IndyCar Series, Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires and Pirelli World Challenge.

So, here’s an attempted recap of some of the things beyond the on-track sessions:

VERIZON INDYCAR SERIES

EXTENSIONS, AND A ROAD MAP, ARE GOOD

Frye (center) has been at head of INDYCAR’s recent development and planning. Photo: IndyCar

It’s a good thing the term “five-year plan” isn’t a drinking term because INDYCAR president of competition and operations Jay Frye says “five-year plan” a lot.

But “five-year plan” is a phrase that can stave off a lot of anxiety because it is a phrase that indicates a clear road map, with direction and commitments from the key series stakeholders.

Frye said the word “plan” no less than eight times during today’s press conference confirming the various extensions between Chevrolet, Honda, Firestone and Dallara.

“I think everybody up here has been part of this five-year plan we keep talking about, which is a collaboration of this entire group, as well as everybody in the paddock,” Frye explained.

“It was important we have a path, a destination of where we’re going. As mentioned earlier, the plan in 19 will change things for ’21, ’22, ’23. We’re always looking that far out. Want to make sure everybody has bought into what we’re doing next.”

Paddock reception to the news seemed positive. Michael Andretti said it was beneficial for INDYCAR, as a sanctioning body, to be proactive rather than reactive and said this is what they are trying to do now. Alexander Rossi, who is in a noticeably better and different mindset about IndyCar than this time 12 months ago when he was making his series debut, was equally effusive.

Will Power added similar praise after the Friday press conference: “I think you could see the momentum with the continuity of drivers, teams, manufacturers, tire manufacturers, all that. It shows strength in the series. It really does. There was a time when there was a different set of drivers every year. Now it’s the same group every year, same teams.”

HONDA FAST, BUT LET’S WAIT TIL TOMORROW FOR MORE

DIxon at speed. Photo: Honda

Quite a bit last year, you’d see some Honda teams have decent practice days, but it didn’t necessarily translate to having better qualifying runs.

At St. Petersburg in particular, only Takuma Sato (2015) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (2016) have gotten Hondas into the Firestone Fast Six since the introduction of manufacturer aero kits.

Chip Ganassi Racing Teams certainly had a great second session today with Dixon first, Tony Kanaan third and Charlie Kimball fourth, all in the 1:02 bracket around the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street course. But Dixon cautioned against reading too much into the times.

“It’s Friday. It doesn’t pay anything, doesn’t mean anything,” said the Kiwi. “Hopefully what we learnt today, we can continue on and help improve the car come tomorrow, and more importantly for the race on Sunday.”

PUTTING THE BRAKES ON THE BRAKE TALK?

Is excessive brake temperature and potential brake fade in the race going to be a major topic of conversation this weekend? It depends on who you ask.

Performance Friction’s carbon brakes make their debut this weekend, replacing previously supplier Brembo. Per PFC Director of Motorsports Darrick Dong, PFC had 28 total IndyCar tests prior to their race debut this weekend dating to the middle of last year. PFC was announced as new supplier in September last season; a full intro Q&A is linked here.

The general perception in the paddock is that some Honda teams may have not optimized their cooling to ensure their discs don’t get too hot, whereas the Chevrolet teams might have done a better job in the design process. Will Power, who was second in second practice, said this isn’t the highest track for brake pressures with only two decently long straights and heavy braking points.

“The brakes for me have been fine. It’s not a really high-pressure track,” Power explained. “I think it’s when you go to places like Elkhart Lake, Indy road course, these places where you have massive brake pressure, and you notice the difference.”

SUSIE WHELDON’S NEW SHOP

Susie Wheldon launched the new Verve Boutique store on Central Avenue downtown St. Petersburg on Thursday night. A number of IndyCar drivers and a solid amount of presence from the IndyCar community were there to support the opening for the new store. Wheldon is the widow of the late Dan Wheldon, the two-time Indianapolis 500 champion and 2005 series champion who lost his life at Las Vegas in October 2011. More info on the night here is linked via Brant James of USA Today.

A couple of photos are below:

FUN PREVIEW FROM MOBIL 1 THE GRID

From Mobil 1 The Grid: a preview and a look ahead to this street race:

MAZDA ROAD TO INDY PRESENTED BY COOPER TIRES

Telitz has a debut pole in Indy Lights. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Here are quick notes from this weekend’s preliminary sessions for the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires before their races, which begin tomorrow:

  • History may be on its way to repeating itself in the top rung of the Mazda Road to Indy, Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, if first practice was to be believed. Pato O’Ward, who was only on an announced one-weekend deal last year (at the time) with Team Pelfrey in Pro Mazda and promptly won the first race of the year, led first practice today in his first session of his one-weekend deal (for now, anyway) in Indy Lights. Santiago Urrutia was second with Colton Herta third. The top 13 were covered by just 0.9656 of a second.
  • Come qualifying though and O’Ward was second behind his Pro Mazda title sparring partner last year, Aaron Telitz with Telitz uncorking a late flier in the No. 9 Soul Red Mazda he drives for Belardi Auto Racing. Telitz’s best time of 1:07.5844 nets him a debut pole in his step up to Indy Lights, and fellow American Kyle Kaiser moves into second in the No. 18 Juncos Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda after O’Ward lost his best time with an accident at Turn 7. In third, Juan Piedrahita has a career-best qualifying run for Team Pelfrey; the Colombian veteran’s previous best was fourth at Sonoma, twice, in 2014.
  • Deltro Energy announced its sponsorship of Herta’s No. 98 Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing entry earlier this week.Based in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, Deltro Energy designs and installs energy storage systems with emerging technologies such as Lithium-ion batteries and fly wheels. The younger Herta, who turns 17 this month and did not race here in 2014 when he last raced full-time in the U.S. in USF2000 because he was too young, also threw out the first pitch at Tuesday’s New York Yankees spring training game, held at nearby George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. Herta’s got a maturity level beyond his years and told NBC Sports he’s so much happier to be back in an American racing atmosphere, after spending the last two years racing in Europe.
  • Despite a late arrival to the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires grid – a deal which only came together within the last week – Victor Franzoni topped the timesheets in first official practice here for Juncos Racing. His old USF2000 sparring partner Anthony Martin was second with Team Pelfrey’s trio of youngsters third through fifth.
  • The order was reversed in qualifying though, with Mazda scholarship recipient Martin eclipsing Franzoni for pole for the first race. The Australian took his Cape Motorsports Soul Red Mazda to a pole time of 1:13.6718, just 0.012 of a second clear of Franzoni. TJ Fischer and Carlos Cunha were next for Pelfrey with World Speed Motorsports’ Phillippe Denes rounding out the top five.
  • Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda had two qualifying sessions, which feature two different orders. Robert Megennis has his first career pole for Team Pelfrey in race one, and Parker Thompson has the first pole for USF2000 debuting team Exclusive Autosport. Somewhat bizarrely, both drivers set the exact same time but in two different sessions, at a lap of 1:15.3708!
  • It’s been a tough weekend for Newman/Wachs Racing in the team’s return to the open-wheel ladder. The former Atlantic Championship title-winning team has witnessed three accidents, two from Andre Castro and one for Cameron Das, who is in his only confirmed weekend with the team so far. Castro was reportedly distraught after a Thursday accident but got back in on Friday, only to have another accident. Das’ car came back on a truck at the end of the session.

Results from today’s sessions are below:

PIRELLI WORLD CHALLENGE

Aquilante led the GTS field in PWC, Friday at St. Petersburg. Photo: PWC

Here are notes from the Pirelli World Challenge paddock:

  • Expect the GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R, the classic “Red Dragon No. 99” car driven by Jon Fogarty, to be a Sprint-weekend only entrant, barring a change of plans from team principal Stallings. The team indicated the desire to be primarily in the Sprint race markets (the five IndyCar weekends) for GAINSCO Auto Insurance agents, and also want to take a “wait-and-see” approach to the SprintX season. The SprintX season starts at Virginia International Raceway at the end of April.
  • Late entrant Daniel Mancinelli, an Italian driver with some GT experience in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, took his No. 31 TR3 Racing Ferrari 488 GT3 to a surprise overall pole position. He was initially classified as a GTA driver (amateur or inexperienced in GT cars status) but later reclassified to GT following a formal evaluation from PWC.
  • Ryan Eversley’s No. 43 RealTime Racing Acura NSX GT3 did not make qualifying after an accident on Thursday, Eversley having hit the wall at Turn 6 in a rare incident for the popular driver out of Georgia who’s become an unofficial resident of Wisconsin in recent years since joining RealTime. Michael Shank Racing is assisting in the repair process by sending some spare parts to Florida to help the rebuild, which will be completed in time for the first GT race to be held on Saturday.
  • Andrew Aquilante took the fifth consecutive victory on the streets of St. Petersburg for the venerable but aging Ford Mustang Boss 302 in PWC GTS race one. Dean Martin and Spencer Pumpelly did so in 2015 with Jack Roush Jr. sweeping last year. This is a one-off weekend for Aquilante and Phoenix Performance, for the moment. Polesitter Lawson Aschenbach took the new Chevrolet Camaro GT4 to second in its race debut for Blackdog Speed Shop with Jade Buford third in one of the Racers Edge SIN R1 GT4s.
  • Speaking of the new Camaro GT4, the Blackdog team showed assembled media around the new car this morning. A full debrief from that will come next week. The Camaro GT4 runs a parallel debut program between PWC and IMSA’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge; the Camaro will debut in that series at Circuit of The Americas in May.
  • Audi Tire Center announced an extension with Magnus Racing’s pair of Audi R8 LMS entries, which make their PWC debut this weekend. Pierre Kaffer and John Potter are in the two cars.

Results from today’s sessions are below:

OTHER NOTES

Andretti Autosport’s new hospitality unit is a sight to behold in the paddock. Photo: Tony DiZinno
  • Andretti Autosport premiered its new hospitality unit in the paddock today, which is rather large and dwarfs all others as it has a rooftop viewing area. Michael Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay both joked the hospitality unit needs a name; when the question was posed to Andretti Indy Lights driver Dalton Kellett, the Canadian engineering major and series sophomore joked it should be called “Clifford the Big Red Tent” in reference to Clifford the Big Red Dog, a children’s carton. The tent may not be red, but it is big.
  • On more serious Andretti Autosport matters, team president JF Thormann told NBC Sports he hopes to have the driver for the team’s fifth car for the Indianapolis 500 settled within the next two weeks.
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, which fields the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda for Graham Rahal this weekend, hosted Special Forces members from MacDill today. RLL’s “Turns for Troops” program continues into 2017; more info on that program is here.
  • Rising Star Racing principal Art Wilmes is here this weekend supporting both of his two primary drivers Spencer Pigot and Neil Alberico, RSR ambassador and “godfather” Josef Newgarden, and Pro Mazda champion and Indy Lights rookie Telitz, who’s had a bit of help from him before. Wilmes said he is working on ensuring Pigot, who’s not currently confirmed for the Indianapolis 500, can land a seat there.
  • On another Rising Star Racing note, several members of the Tampa Bay Lighting were present today for pace car rides, and hung out with RSR’s current primary Indy Lights driver Alberico of Carlin.
  • Ricky Taylor was here today as an interested bystander. Taylor tested for Team Penske last month at Homestead-Miami Speedway, in his IndyCar debut. “It was an absolute blast. Every driver’s goal at one point in their career is to be an IndyCar driver, and it was amazing to get the call to drive a Penske car,” Taylor told IndyCar Radio. “We were doing a two-day test in Sebring with the Cadillac, I said I have to miss one of them. I’m testing a Penske car! Took the test and it was a blast to drive one of these, muscling around.”
  • Verizon has a new pit display branding in pit lane, that takes cues from its previous design and is updated for 2017.
  • Honda’s hospitality – long a paddock staple – continues with additional enhancements including a new awning and several other new elements once inside the tent. The food, as ever, remains excellent.
  • Oriol Servia is here, as is fellow open-wheel veteran Adrian Fernandez. Fernandez said he offers some advice and support to young Mexican drivers while he can, such as Indy Lights driver O’Ward.
  • While rookie Ed Jones made his formal debut on track today in the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, three of that car’s four drivers from last year were also either at the track today or en route to it. RC Enerson was here, doing his best to keep his face present in the paddock after his three-race debut last year. Gabby Chaves is here as well, doing the same, while Pippa Mann was en route to St. Petersburg and expects to be here this weekend for an autograph signing at INDYCAR’s Fan Village and to check in with the paddock herself.

More to come from the rest of the weekend later on.

INDYCAR: What Drivers Said after Friday’s two practices at Barber

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Here’s what drivers had to say after Friday’s two practice sessions for Sunday’s Honda Grand Prix of Alabama (there’s one final practice plus qualifying on Saturday):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, 2017 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama winner, 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series champion): “It’s great…home track for me. It wins the war between this place and Indianapolis (Motor Speedway) because it’s an hour closer, so I think that’s why I call it the home track. Unfortunately, we don’t race in Nashville anymore. But I’ve always loved Barber. It is a special place for me. It’s the place I got my first win with CFH (Racing) back in the day, and it’s a place I won my first race for Team Penske. It’s had a couple firsts for me, so it’s been good for that. Good memories. I love this racetrack. I think it’s one of the best that we get to drive at from sort of a style standpoint. It’s very technical, but it’s got a lot of flow to it. It feels kind of like a roller coaster to me is the best way to describe the style of it. I have a lot of fun here. I think it’s great. We’re going to try and have a good weekend. We had a pretty good start for the most part. We had some issues in the first session. Just kind of been dealing with a couple things that I think we got sorted out for the second session there, but we seem like we’ve got some speed. I think our other cars got some speed, as well. Simon (Pagenaud) looked like he suffered from maybe a similar problem, and I don’t think Will (Power) had a very good lap, so I think those guys will be right there with us. Team Penske I think is going to be strong tomorrow, I’m sure.

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “We’re struggling with understeer in mid-corner, so we need more rotation in the car. If we can fix the mid-corner understeer, we’re going to have a fast car tomorrow. We’ll keep working on it, and hopefully we’ll have a great weekend.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “We learned a lot today. We tried to come test here a few weeks ago, but unfortunately Mother Nature had a different plan, so we didn’t get a lot of running in. We came into this weekend with a bit of an evolution from what we tested, still were a little bit off, and over lunch, the Arrow Electronics guys made a couple of great changes. It doesn’t look great on the time sheets because our fast lap was when that red flag came out, so they took it away from us. I think we’re decently inside the top 10, which is a big jump from this morning.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “We lost water pressure somewhere in the Lucas Oil car, so we’re playing it safe. No water pressure means no water circulation to the engine, then it overheats and blows up. We’re taking the precautions to keep the engine alive, but unfortunately, we stopped after a couple of laps. It’s an hour free practice and we only did two competitive laps, so we’re just watching everyone else improve their cars and we aren’t able to right now. It’s pretty disappointing.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “We’re in the ballpark at the front, which is a good start for the No. 9 PNC Bank team. The Penske cars are up front and I think that’s a result of them doing some additional testing here. We kind of expected that to start. We did a qualifying run and the car was just too loose for some reason. And then we were fighting understeer this morning, so we’ve seen both sides of it. Now it’s up to us to get it right for qualifying tomorrow.”

ED JONES (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “It was a difficult end to the day for us. I think after starting well this morning, we struggled in the afternoon. It could have been the heat that affected us, I’m not really sure. Tonight, we’ll have to look at the data and what we learned from the NTT DATA car, talk to Scott (Dixon) and look toward tomorrow. I’m optimistic because we have a good base setup and we just need a little bit more work to get it right.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I think once again the temperature of the track really makes it tough in these cars. It was very nice this morning and was easy to get lap times. And then all of a sudden this afternoon, even on reds (Firestone alternate tires), it’s very difficult to get the car right. We’re going to have to go back and have a good think about it.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “It’s a difficult day. We’re struggling a lot. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda): “Today was OK. I didn’t think that we were great there in the second practice, but if you’re off a little bit, it can make a five-, six-, seven-spot difference. It’s going to be really tight (on the time sheets) there tomorrow, so we’ve got to work on it and get it a little better.” (About whether qualifying performance is even more important if rain falls during the race:) “Qualifying will be important, but I think if it’s rainy, I think you will be able to make moves and you will see a lot of guys make mistakes.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team SealMaster Honda): “I am not quite sure what to think about the whole day. We are not super happy with the car, but in the meantime, it is decently fast. We made some gains and at least the car is doing one thing, so that’s the good thing. The SealMaster Honda No. 18 is in the ballpark. It seems like all we are doing right now is preparing for qualifying because it is definitely going to rain on Sunday. We are going to have to think very hard on what we are going to do in those conditions. We just have to keep working and see what we get tomorrow.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “We didn’t have a great morning aboard the No. 19 Paysafe car as we struggled a bit with the balance, but the second practice session was a lot better. We ended up P12, but had the potential for a lot more. When we went out on the Firestone red (alternate) tires near the end of the session, a red flag came out and that didn’t help us. I think we definitely could have been in the top 10, maybe even the top five. Overall, it’s encouraging heading into practice and qualifying tomorrow.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “This morning was really good and we made some good progress. For this afternoon’s session, we changed a couple of things to see if they helped. We’re keeping the tradition, though, of not getting a lap time on reds (Firestone alternate tires), between traffic and red flags and yellows. We are farther down than I think we should be. We should be quite a bit quicker, probably seven or eight tenths faster than what we were. We’re not a million miles away. We just need a few more small improvements to get me a bit more comfortable with the car.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “That was a really good session. It’s nice to end up at the front here at Barber. It’s one of my favorite tracks, I really enjoy it. The session was good right from the get-go on black (Firestone primary) tires. We were quite fast, then when we put the reds (Firestone alternate tires) on, the car just gained more grip. Sometimes when you put them on, it can really change the balance, but this time it felt really good. We were able to get a little more out of the car in pretty much every corner. I’m very happy with the Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevy so far, hopefully we can keep it up there.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “The car is really fast. It was a really good session to start. But unfortunately, we had a bit of a spin on the reds (Firestone alternate tires) trying a little too hard, I guess. That’s what you have to do before qualifying. You have to find the limits, but I’m very happy with the Menards car. I think we’ll be in great shape tomorrow.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Group One Thousand One Honda): “So far, it’s just been really nice to have experience at this track, which makes it a little easier coming in. We’ve been trying a lot of things today and I think we were a little stronger in the morning than this afternoon. We have a bit to go back and look at, but compared to where I was here last year, it’s night and day difference. I’m just happy to have the opportunity that we do, and we’re going to keep pushing forward.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 Kerauno / MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda, Verizon IndyCar Series points leader): “This morning was definitely a struggle for all of us. I think the No. 27 car was the most outside of the window, but we made a lot of improvements over lunch. We have something to be positive about going into this evening and looking forward to tomorrow. I think we need to take one or two steps in a similar direction, but if we can do that, I think the Kerauno car will be good enough for the Firestone Fast Six.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “I think we made steady progress through the day. We started out with the rear of the car way too exposed, too loose through most corners. We needed to bring it more into the window, which I think we did in the final session, considering we didn’t get a full run on new red tires due to a red flag. I think the DHL car has some good pace in it, so hopefully we can make the next step tomorrow.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “The second session was better. I think we made some good progress from the first one. The first session was a little bit of finding the right direction to go in and it seems we found one. Still, we have a little work to be done Saturday. Having said that, there was quite a few yellows and red flags that interrupted the session. I know everyone is in the same boat, but our best lap was like a rerun and we were never able to do a long run, so it’s a little gray on how we will be for Sunday (in the race). We lost some downforce compared to last year and the tires have quite a good drop-off, or degradation, so after you use them the first or second timed lap, the tires are losing a lot of grip. It’s not a huge amount, we’re talking about a small amount, but it’s enough to make a difference. We are trying a different kind of philosophy in terms of the mechanical setup, trying to match the balance and grip level of where we were last year, so that’s why everyone is trying different things. Some people struggle, some people find a happy place.”

RENE BINDER (No. 32 Binderholz tiptop timber Chevrolet): “I think that the practice went well in the beginning. We did find some improvement, so it went better and better. Then we put the red tires on and I tried to push hard and maybe a little too much. I then lost the car, it went straight into the wall. It was a little bit too late with my hands, taking them off the steering wheel, so my left hand hurts a little bit.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Tough day for us today. We had a mechanical issue towards the end of Practice 2, so it cut our time on track short. I know the Harding Racing guys are working hard to make sure everything will be good to go tomorrow for Practice 3 and qualifying. We’ll keep at it tonight to be ready to push tomorrow.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 Kerauno / Curb Honda): “The Kerauno car was decent today, and coming out of Friday in the top 10 is a good place to start the weekend. We have a few things we want to work on overnight that I think will help the car be even better, and that’s what we’re going to focus on. Hoping to make it into the Firestone Fast Six tomorrow and challenge for the pole.”